This article was originally published February 28, 2014
The Star of David or Magen David (literally, Shield of David), as its referred to in Hebrew, is the most common symbol for expressing Jewish identity today, but this was not always so.
The Hebrew name for the symbol – a hexagram formed by two overlapping triangles, one pointed upward and the other downward – comes from its supposed resemblance to King David’s shield. However, use of the Star of David as a Jewish symbol only became widespread in 17th-century Europe, when it was used displayed on synagogues to identify them as Jewish places of worship.. In antiquity, the most commonly used symbol of Judaism was the menorah, the seven-branched candelabrum that stood in the Temple in Jerusalem before it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. Albeit no longer as popular a symbol as it once was, the menorah is still used as the official emblem of Israel and its various government entities, and it appears on the back of the 10-agorot coin (which is worth about 3 cents). (A design competition is being held at present, however, in order to come up with a new symbol for the Knesset.)
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In 1897, the Zionist movement adopted the Star of David as its emblem. In 1948, it was incorporated into the design of the flag of the new State of Israel, and it is used today to symbolize everything from Israel Air Force planes to the local version of the Red Cross, the Magen David Adom (Red Star of David) emergency paramedic service.
One of the earliest uses of the Star of David as a symbol of Jewish identity was in 1354, when Charles IV King of Bohemia granted the Jews of Prague the right to bear a red flag depicting the Star of David and Solomon’s Seal (a Star of David within a circle). After Jews were emancipated following the French Revolution, many of their communities selected the Star of David as their emblem.
The hexagram associated with the Star of David has throughout history been used by other religions as well. In Hinduism, it is referred to as the shatkona, with the upward triangle in the star shape representing Shiva (the masculine side of God) and the downward-pointing triangle representing Shakti (the feminine side of the divinity). The symbol thus generally represents the merging of the male and the female, and, the elements of fire and water, respectively. The Star of David also appears in the architecture of Mormon places of worship, where it symbolizes the union of heaven and earth, with God reaching down to man and man reaching up to God.
By the early 20th century, the symbol was used in the realm of international sporting events by Jewish competitors as a proud expression of their identity. One of the early popularizers of the Star of David was Hakoah Vienna, an all-Jewish club founded in 1909 (and disbanded in 1938 by the Nazis) that fielded athletes competing in fencing, soccer, swimming, field hockey, track and field, wrestling and other sports. The symbol was the club’s official emblem and it appeared on all uniforms.
Jewish boxers in the U.S. have been known since the early 20th century for having a Star of David stitched onto their trunks. Most famously, Jewish world heavyweight champion Max Baer, sported a Star of David on his trunks when he knocked out German boxing champion Max Schmeling in 1933 to claim the title of heavyweight champion of the world. More recently, Orthodox Jewish American boxer Dmitry Salita, 32, took “Star of David” as his fighting name.
Perhaps, more unusually, the hexagram is also a symbol in U.S. gang culture of the Black Disciple Nation (which later merged to become Black Gangster Disciple Nation), which originated in Chicago. The use of the symbol is associated with the group’s founder, David Barksdale, who known by his fellow criminals as King David.